Like a Swiss Army Knife, Windows 10 was designed to do just about everything for everyone…or at least that’s Microsoft’s hope. It’s built to provide a unified operating system that can run across multiple platforms, such as PCs, tablets and smartphones. It’s also designed to provide PC users with a more traditional Windows experience compared to Windows 8’s touch-centric UI, something Microsoft hopes will win over long-time Windows users and many IT departments that skipped Windows 8. Lastly, Windows 10 marks the beginning of Microsoft’s Windows-as-a-service strategy, which could signal the end of numbered Windows releases.

SEE: Cheat Sheet: Windows 10 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

To help IT leaders get up to speed on Windows 10, we compiled the most important details and related resources on Microsoft’s latest operating system into this guide, which we’ll periodically update as new information becomes available. This article is also available as a download, Cheat sheet: Windows 10 (free PDF).

Windows 11 released

As of October 5, 2021, Microsoft Windows 11 is available as a general release to the public. Assuming it is October 5 or later and assuming your personal computer meets the prerequisite requirements including installation of Windows 10 1909 or later, you can upgrade to Windows 11 by navigating to the Update & Security settings screen.

Users may also take advantage of the Windows 11 Installation Assistant to bypass the Windows 10 Update & Security screen and upgrade to Windows 11 directly.

SEE: Windows 11: Tips on installation, security and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Windows 10 October 2020 Update

The Windows 10 October 2020 Update, also known as Windows 10 version 20H2, released to the public on Oct. 20, 2020. This release fixes several bugs in the operating system and adds a few notable quality-of-life features. For example, version 20H2 includes the Chromium-based version of the Microsoft Edge web browser, making it the official default browser for Windows 10. Version 20H2 also streamlines the Start Menu and makes more changes to the Settings Control Panel.

Additional resources:

Windows 10 May 2020 Update

As of May 27, 2020, Windows 10, Version 2004, became available to mainstream users. The 20H1 update of Windows 10 included several new user-friendly features, numerous bug fixes, and new tools for developers.

On the developer’s side, an updated version of the Windows Subsystem for Linux will convert the system from a translation layer to a virtual machine running Microsoft’s Linux kernel. In addition, admins now have better and more feature-rich update optimization tools.

Users will notice an improvement in Bluetooth and other wireless connectivity, as well as enhancements to GPU monitoring and management. The Cortana digital assistant is no longer an integral part of the operating system–it’s now a separate app.

Additional resources:

Windows 10 November 2019 Update

The Windows 10 November 2019 Update was made “… available to the Release Preview ring of the Windows Insider Program on October 14, 2019,” states ZDNet contributing writer Ed Bott. Windows 10 Version 1909 was released to the general public on November 12, 2019.

The Windows 10 November 2019 Update is listed as an optional update on the Windows 10 Update screen, granting users the opportunity to choose if and when they would like to install it. This marked a major change in the way Microsoft deploys Windows 10 update packages—one major update in the Spring of each year and one smaller maintenance update in the Fall of each year.

SEE: Windows 10 power tips: Secret shortcuts to your favorite settings (TechRepublic Premium)

Many of the new features in the Windows 10 November 2019 Update are behind-the-scenes improvements to general performance and battery usage efficiency. There are also several feature improvements included for OEMs, application developers and enterprise administrators. With the release of Windows 10 Version 1909, users of voice-activated digital assistants can converse with associated devices from the Windows 10 lock screen.

Additional resources:

Windows 10 May 2019 Update

The Windows 10 May 2019 Update was made “… available to the Release Preview ring of the Windows Insider Program on April 8, 2019,” states ZDNet contributing writer Ed Bott. ZDNet contributor Mary Jo Foley reported that on April 18, 2019 Windows 10 was made available on MSDN, as well as its Windows Server 1903 component. The Windows 10 May 2019 Update became widely available to consumers on May 21, 2019.

Windows 10 October 2018 Update

The Windows 10 October 2018 Update is considered an evolution of the original Windows 10 release. With editions for home users, business professionals, and for enterprise, it offered a mix of features for every user working across PCs and tablets.

Microsoft had slowly been evolving the Windows user interface to take advantage of more natural ways of working with a computer. The mouse and keyboard are still there, but screens are more touch-friendly, with a powerful on-screen keyboard powered by the same underlying machine learning system as the familiar mobile SwiftKey. There’s also support for eye tracking, for Microsoft’s own rotary Dial, and for on-screen pens.

Each new release adds new interaction models, as Microsoft takes advantage of its Windows-as-a-Service model to push out regular small changes that over time add up to a new Windows. The old numbered and named releases have gone away, as have the themed semi-annual updates. Now Windows gets its name from the month it’s released, just like the Xbox gaming platform.

SEE: Windows-as-a-service fail: Microsoft keeps customers in the dark (ZDNet)

1809 is the last of the Redstone series of Windows 10 releases. Originally codenamed RS5, it added new dark mode UI elements, as well as a wider implementation of Microsoft’s Fluent design style, across both the OS and Windows 10’s built-in applications. Other new features include deeper integration with Android phones via the Your Phone app, improved screen capture tools, a cloud-hosted clipboard, plus changes to the Start menu search experience and the Cortana virtual assistant.

This release also introduced a business-friendly support model, with support for the September/October releases extended to 30 months, with 18 months support for the March/April releases. It’s a change that will make it easier for businesses and users that want to update Windows every one or two years, without having to go to the feature-limited Long Term Servicing (LTS) release. Other Enterprise updates include new sign-in and security tooling, and the policies to ensure they can be managed and deployed to all users.

Executive summary

  • What is Windows 10? Windows 10 is the latest major release of Microsoft’s Windows operating system and is the successor to Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1. Windows 10 includes support for tablets and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. It remains backwards compatible with software written for most earlier versions of Windows and DOS, and has added support for Linux applications and for Arm processors as well as Intel and AMD x86 hardware.
  • Why does Windows 10 matter? Windows 10 contains a host of new features, security updates and a platform-unifying design aimed at both enterprise users and consumers. Windows remains Microsoft’s flagship product, and is still the dominant PC operating system. By switching to a semi-annual release schedule, it’s able to add features and support new services building on a familiar platform and user interface. Microsoft calls this delivery model Windows-as-a-Service.
  • Who does Windows 10 affect? Windows 10 is available from the Microsoft Store and from other retailers, and it will be the default operating system of many newly purchased computers and electronic devices. Windows 10 is now installed on around 1 billion devices. With an accelerated delivery model, Microsoft is aiming to bring as many users as possible to the new release as quickly as possible.
  • When was Windows 10 released? Microsoft made Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro generally available on July 29, 2015 through a staggered release schedule. Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education editions were made available beginning on August 1, 2015. Microsoft released the Windows 10 April 2018 Update on May 30, 2018 and began rolling it out to customers on a staggered basis. The Windows 10 October 2018 Update began rolling out in October 2018 but was delayed due to severe bugs; as of December 2018, the rollout was back on track. The Windows 10 May 2019 Update became generally available on May 21, 2019. The Windows 10 November 2019 Update became generally available on Nov. 12, 2019. On May 27, 2020, the Windows 10 May 2020 Update became available to mainstream users. The Windows 10 October 2020 Update became generally available on Oct. 20, 2020.
  • How can I get Windows 10? Windows 10 is available to purchase through the Microsoft Store and through other retailers, with downloads from the Windows 10 website via Microsoft’s media creation tool. This can install Windows 10 on PCs directly or create bootable USB installation drives. ISO files are also available for DVD installation. Upgrades to 1809 from previous Windows 10 releases will come via Windows’ built-in update tool.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

What is Windows 10?

Officially unveiled on Sept. 30, 2014, Windows 10 is the current major release of Microsoft’s Windows operating system and is the successor to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1.

Developed under the codename “Threshold” with later builds coming from the “Redstone” branch, Microsoft’s goal with Windows 10 is to provide a common operating system that can run across multiple platforms–including PCs, tablets, smartphones, embedded systems and even Xbox One, Surface Hub and HoloLens. Each platform has a device-specific user interface (UI), but shares the same Windows 10 core.

Windows 10 includes several new features and important changes, in addition to its platform-unifying design. Many new features are designed to improve the desktop experience and draw in business users who were turned off by Windows 8’s tile-based UI and the initial removal of the Start menu. Key features include:

  • Start menu: Windows 10’s Start menu combines the Windows 7-like application list and the live tiles interface from Windows 8’s Start screen. Windows-8 style “modern” apps (now called Universal Windows Platform or UWP apps) can run within a window on the desktop, like standard desktop programs. There is also support for apps developed with the Windows 10 Desktop Bridge, which lets Windows Win32 applications take advantage of Windows 10 features including Live Tiles. A new wider application launch view in the October 2018 Update gives you access to more application options, and improves application search.
  • Action Center: The Charms menu is replaced with the Action Center, a sidebar that provides notifications and contains buttons for common tasks.
  • Tablet mode: A new tablet mode is designed to make Windows 10 easier to operate without a keyboard or a mouse. From the October 2018 Update, the on-screen keyboard is powered by the same technology as Microsoft’s Android and iOS SwiftKey.
  • Improved security: New security features include Windows Hello, an integrated biometric authentication system, and Windows Defender Application Guard, which runs the Edge browser in its own Hyper-V isolated process.
  • Microsoft Edge: Formerly codenamed Project Spartan, Edge is the default web browser in Windows 10. With the release of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, the Edge browser now supports extensions, greatly increasing the flexibility of the browser. Internet Explorer 11 is included with the OS, but is basically unchanged from the version of IE11 found in Windows 7 and 8.1. Edge is also Windows’ built-in PDF viewer and ePub ebook reader. The underlying EdgeHTML engine is a modern HTML 5 browser, with support for most modern web standards.
  • Cortana integration: Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-powered personal assistant, makes its desktop debut in Windows 10 and can be configured to take over the Search box. It now also works with Amazon’s Alexa and with a range of home automation hardware. The October 2018 Update gives Cortana and Windows Search a new, wider search look-and-feel with additional search options. However, some features, like parcel tracking, are being moved from Cortana into other Windows applications.
  • Xbox Live integration: Although not critical for many business users, Xbox Live is built into Windows 10. Users can stream games from an Xbox One to a desktop, laptop or tablet over Wi-Fi, play multiplayer games with people on different platforms and more. A built-in Game Bar mode allows full-screen recording, which works with desktop apps as well as games.
  • Enhanced graphics: Windows 10 includes new versions of DirectX and WDDM to improve game performance. Workstation apps can also use these features to access GPU hardware for additional compute performance.
  • Above the login screen: The Windows 10 Anniversary Update (1607) allows users to access several applications, including Cortana and the Calendar app, without having to log in first.
  • 3D Paint app: The Windows 10 Creators Update (1703) added a new 3D Paint app, which allows users to more easily create and share 3D scenes and models.
  • Windows Timeline and Shared Experiences: With the April 2018 Update (1803), Windows Timeline added cross-system support for shared activities, showing what Office documents you’ve worked on and which web pages you’ve visited. You can resume work through Cortana, and pick up web browsing sessions from another PC–and also send browser sessions from mobile devices to the desktop. A new Your Phone app in the October 2018 Update brings recent photographs and SMS messages from your Android phone to your desktop. As of December 2018, the rollout was again back on track and the update should have been applied to all devices by early 2019. The official rollout began in late May 2019.
  • Snip & Sketch: Microsoft used the October 2018 Update to deliver a new version of its screen capture tooling. Use Shift+Win+S to launch a new screen capture experience, with a pen-enabled editing tool to edit and annotate your captures.
  • Sticky Notes: Originally part of the Windows Ink Workspace, Sticky Notes is now an app in its own right, with a major update promised that will integrate it with Windows’ other note-taking and task management tools.
  • Cloud Clipboard: Windows now offers a clipboard history that works across devices logged into the same Microsoft account, using the same Microsoft Graph that powers the Timeline.
  • UI improvements: Microsoft is moving away from the flat look of Windows 8 with a more natural Fluent Design language. This adds translucency and new animations, and is slowly being rolled out across Windows and its various core applications. Closely related is a “dark mode” for Windows, with a new dark version of Windows Explorer.
  • Storage Sense: Microsoft has replaced the old Disk Cleanup utility with a new application, Storage Sense. This new tool automatically deletes old cached and temporary files from your storage devices to free up space for new files. The automated management of hard drive storage will increase the overall performance of a Windows 10 device without requiring interaction with users.
  • Windows Calendar: It has been a long time coming, but with the October 2018 Update, Microsoft finally added a much-needed search feature to the Windows Calendar app. Users can now type in a few key words to find their appointments, even if they were added to the calendar by Cortana.
  • Windows Sandbox: The Windows 10 May 2019 Update added a new containerization feature to the Pro and Enterprise versions that allows executable applications to be tested by running them in a safe isolated version of Windows 10. Through configuration users can even block the Sandbox from accessing networks and the internet. Closing the Sandbox will remove the application and its remnants.
  • Reserved Storage: With the May 2019 Update, Windows 10 now has the ability to hold 7 GB of hard disk storage in reserve for use during system maintenance. Clean Windows 10 installs after the May 2019 Update activate this feature automatically. Previously installed versions of Windows 10 updated to version 1903 are required to manually activate the feature.
  • Cortana search separation: The May 2019 Update separated Cortana and the standard search box on the Taskbar. Cortana digital assistant interaction now has its own icon, while the search box remains on the Taskbar as before.
  • Improved Start menu: The May 2019 Update and the Windows 10 October 2020 Update further refined the look and feel of the Windows 10 Start Menu. The new and improved Start menu should have less automatically installed tiles, and the layout should seem much less cluttered and more streamlined.
  • Chromium-based Microsoft Edge: With the Windows 10 May 2019 Update, the Microsoft Edge web browser became a Chromium-based open source application, opening Edge up to more third-party plugin development. The Windows 10 October 2020 Update made the Chromium-based Edge browser the official default browser of Windows 10.
  • Linux file system: The May 2019 Update added support for Linux files directly into the Windows 10 File Explorer application.
  • Personalized Taskbar: With the Windows 10 October 2020 Update, users can personalize the pinning feature of the Taskbar to better suit their priorities and user style.
Microsoft’s Edge browser
Image: Mark Kaelin

Windows 10 comes in four Editions (versions): Windows 10 Home, Windows 10 Pro, Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education. The Windows 10 October 2020 Update, also known as Windows 10 version 20H2, released to the public on Oct. 20, 2020. This release fixes several bugs in the operating system and adds a few notable features. Those looking to manually install the 20H2 Update can use the Windows 10 Update Assistant.

Microsoft’s official system requirements for Windows 10 are:

  • Processor: 1GHz or faster processor or SoC
  • RAM: 1 GB for 32-bit OS or 2 GB for 64-bit OS; recommended 4 GB
  • Hard disk space: 16 GB for 32-bit or 20 GB for 64-bit OS
  • Graphics card: DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver
  • Display: 800×600

Additional resources:

Why does Windows 10 matter?

Windows 10 is Microsoft’s effort to recapture many enterprise users who balked at Windows 8’s mobile-focused interface and to finally move the last Windows XP and Vista holdouts onto a newer OS.

Windows 10 builds on Windows 7 and on Windows 8, mixing a familiar user interface with mobile and touch-friendly user elements. With Windows XP and Vista no longer supported, and Windows 7 close to end-of-life, it’s intended to be both an upgrade from older Windows releases and the OS on new Windows PCs. With new security features and a built-in store, it also brings a new set of modern application development APIs in the shape of the cross-platform UWP.

Beyond the new features, security updates, and its platform-unifying design, Windows 10 marks a significant shift in how Microsoft’s characterizes its flagship operating system. Microsoft is encouraging people to think of Windows 10 as a “service.” The Windows as a Service delivery model allows Microsoft to regularly deliver new features as part of a semi-annual delivery model.

April/May releases will be supported for 18 months, and September/October releases will be supported for 30 months. Alongside the regularly updated releases, Microsoft also offers a long-term servicing branch that’s intended for critical applications that require minimal updates, and which will be supported for 10 years.

Windows 10 Home users only get access to the Current Branch of Windows, which is delivered via the Windows Update service. There’s no way of directly delaying or disabling updates to Windows Home, as Microsoft intends for home users to have the most secure version of Windows possible.

Similarly, Windows 10 Pro allows access to Current Branch releases and the Current Branch for Business. Using the Current Branch for Business, you can delay major updates until they’ve been tested and approved. However, security updates will be installed automatically. Education users get the same options as Windows 10 Pro.

Windows 10 Enterprise adds support for the Long Term Servicing Branch, though with LTSB there’s no access to the Windows Store, Cortana, or Edge. Most of the other Windows 10 default applications aren’t included either, and aren’t supported even if sideloaded. New releases come every 2-3 years.

SEE: Beyond the basic Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts: Clever things you can do with keyboard settings (TechRepublic)

Microsoft changed the names used for the different Windows 10 channels as part of aligning Windows 10 with both Office 365 and Microsoft 365. Current Branch is now referred to as Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted), Current Branch for Business is the Semi-Annual Channel, while the Long Term Servicing Branch is now the Long Term Servicing Channel.

Insider channels give early access to new features, but should only be used for test machines or by enthusiasts. Skip Ahead is for early access to the next major build of Windows, with Slow and Fast rings giving access to the current development builds. A Release Preview option gives early access to drivers and security updates, allowing IT departments to qualify updates in advance of wider availability. Microsoft actively suggests that IT departments keep a selection of machines on the different Insider rings in order to ensure that key applications are compatible and to set development targets for new Windows SDK releases.

Additional resources:

Who does Windows 10 affect?

Users running an eligible version of Windows 7 (SP1) or Windows 8/8.1 could have upgraded to Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro for free until July 29, 2016. However, the time for the free upgrade has passed and a copy of Windows 10 from the Microsoft Store costs $119.99.

Users running Windows XP or Windows Vista must purchase a copy of Windows 10 from the Microsoft Store or other retailer. There is no direct upgrade path from Windows XP or Windows Vista to Windows 10. On these machines, Windows 10 must be loaded as a “clean install,” and users should back up their data prior to installing the new operating system.

Additional resources:

When was Windows 10 released?

Windows 10 general availability (GA) began on July 29, 2015, with Microsoft adopting a staggered deployment schedule.

Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education editions were made available beginning on August 1, 2015 through Microsoft’s Volume Licensing Center (neither edition was included in the first-year-free program).

The Windows 10 Anniversary Update was released on August 2, 2016. The update included new and better security features with improvements to applications like Windows Hello, Windows Defender, and Windows Information Protection. The Anniversary Update also augmented support for digital pens with the addition of Windows Ink, a built-in platform that can interpret input beyond the traditional mouse and keyboard. Microsoft Edge gained support for extensions, including AdBlock, Translator, and Office Online. Extensions allow developers to create apps inside Edge and greatly enhance the browser’s overall capabilities.

SEE: TechRepublic’s Windows 10 Flipboard magazine

The Windows 10 Creators Update was released on April 11, 2017, and included a new 3D Paint app, new security features, changes to how Microsoft updates Windows 10, and laid the foundational for new hardware and content based on augmented and virtual reality.

The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update was released on October 17, 2017, and its new features include built-in ransomware protection, bandwidth controls, and more. Find out whether your machine will run the update, and why IT admins should prepare for the inevitable glitches and hiccups.

The Windows 10 April 2018 Update, released on May 8, 2018, added Timeline as a way of sharing documents and web history between machines, allowing you to pick up work where you left off.

The Windows 10 October 2018 Update began rolling out in October 2018, as scheduled; however, there were several severe bugs associated with the release at that early stage, and the rollout was delayed for approximately a month. As of December 2018, the rollout was again back on track and despite some additional minor bugs, it should be installed on all Windows 10 devices by early 2019.

ZDNet contributor Ed Bott writes, “Microsoft made Windows 10 version 1903 (also known as the Windows 10 May 2019 Update) available to the Release Preview ring of the Windows Insider Program on April 8, 2019.” The Windows 10 May 2019 Update, as well as its Windows Server 1903 component, was released on April 18, 2019 on MSDN. The official rollout is still expected to be in late May 2019.

Additional resources:

How do I get Windows 10?

For the first year of general availability, Windows 10 Home and Pro were free if you were running a genuine copy of an eligible version of Windows 7 (SP1) and Windows 8/8.1. On eligible machines, an icon for the Get Windows 10 app appeared in the taskbar and allowed users to “reserve” a free copy of the operating system.

As of July 29, 2016, the free upgrade is no longer an option. Users can purchase Windows 10 from the Microsoft Store for the retail price of $139. Frugal shoppers may be able to find Windows 10 available at a lower price.

Mark Kaelin/TechRepublic

Additional resources:

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